By Wade Bourne, WF360 Mississippi Flyway Migration Editor
Warming temperatures, rain, and thawing ice are changing the duck hunting picture in Arkansas.
Just before Christmas, heavy rainfall caused rivers to rise and push backwaters into adjacent timber and brushy lowlands. Ducks holding in pumped-up fields and private reservoirs left to explore these new waters and to search for fresh food sources.
Then the cold front on January 5 spread bone-chilling air across the South and locked up shallow waters under thick ice. Hunting success in Arkansas suffered as ducks concentrated in places where they could find open water. A few hunters who found these birds enjoyed spectacular shooting. For most, however, the ice was a hindrance.
Now, fresh rain and warming temperatures are thawing out flooded fields that not long ago resembled skating rinks, and floodwaters along the rivers in eastern Arkansas are beginning to drop. Ducks are responding to these changes by returning to the fields and working eagerly to decoys and calls.
And there are plenty of ducks in Arkansas for hunters to chase. "We flew our midwinter bird count January 6–8 and we found that we have around twice as many ducks in the state now as we had when we completed our December survey," reports Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. "This time we counted approximately 920,000 ducks, of which 800,000 were mallards. This is a dramatic increase over what we counted a month ago and it is one of the highest percentages of mallards we've ever seen."
Bo Sloan, manager of the massive White River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, reports, "I took a driving tour of the south end of the refuge on January 9 and I didn't see just a world of ducks. I've heard there's been a movement of birds to the northern White River bottoms and up the Cache River. I know the White River is about a foot above flood stage at Clarendon, and it's stabilized. It could rise again or start falling, depending on how much rain we get with the system that's coming through today."
Sloan continues, "We're definitely on a thaw, and when the fields open back up, that's where the ducks will go."
Jeremy Bennett, manager of Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the northeast corner of the state, concurs. He reports, "We've got about 200,000 ducks just sitting in a couple of open holes in the ice. But we should get a good thawing out by the weekend – January 11 and 12 – and when we do, those ducks will be hungry. It'll be a good time to be hunting a rice field."
Late hunting reports confirm Sloan's and Bennett's predictions. Mike Bogy of Flying Feathers Guide Service out of Stuttgart is having success as the water thaws. "The water's just starting to thaw out pretty good, and we're seeing a lot of ducks," he says. "We're especially seeing big swarms of green-winged teal, sometimes 200-300 in a bunch, and a lot of mallards, pintails, and gadwalls. The ducks worked really well this morning."
Call maker Buck Gardner of Memphis, Tennessee, says the heavy pre-Christmas rains "spread the ducks out" along the St. Francis, L'Anguille, Cache, and other drainages in eastern Arkansas. "I've had some friends hunting around Marianna, and they've been having good luck. They've had to follow the flood and do a lot of scouting to stay on birds," he says. "They've also had to break a lot of ice to expose some open water. But now the ice is going away and the ducks should be back in the fields in big numbers by this weekend."
The popular Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area near Humphrey is currently holding "a good number of ducks," reports Mark Hooks, Region 3 wildlife management supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He also says that hunters visiting the state's signature public hunting area haven't been as affected by the freeze as hunters in other areas. He explains, "We've been releasing water through our control structures in Bayou Meto, and this has created current in many of the stream corridors that filter through the area. This has kept ice from forming in some places, and hunters who knew where to find open water have been doing very well this past week."
So, an ongoing thaw and plenty of ducks with strong appetites should mean good days ahead for Arkansas hunters. The long-range forecast is calling for mild temperatures to prevail for the next two weeks, and this translates into good hunting prospects through the season's end on January 26.
Wade Bourne is the Ducks Unlimited Magazine editor-at-large, former DU-TV host, avid waterfowler and conservationist. Bourne will provide habitat and hunting reports for the Mississippi Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 season for Waterfowl360 and the DU Migration Map.